Last Updated on June 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 164
The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is a work in five parts that serves as a mythological creation story and history of the Middle Earth, the fictional universe created by Tolkien that served as a setting for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings . The first part...
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The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is a work in five parts that serves as a mythological creation story and history of the Middle Earth, the fictional universe created by Tolkien that served as a setting for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The first part of the Simarillion, the Ainulindalë, is the creation myth. It describes the creation of Ea through a series of battles that take place between the forces of good and evil. The second part, the Valaquenta, describes the Valar, or the creator gods. The third part, the Quenta Silmarillion, consists of a number of stories that describe historical events that took place during the First Age of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The fourth part tells the history of the Second Age, and the fifth part tells about the Third Age and the power of the rings. Interestingly, Tolkien continued to expand on The Silmarillion as he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3007
The Silmarillion is not a traditional, single-text novel, but a collection of five separately titled texts, the “Ainulindale,” “Valaquenta,” “Quenta Silmarillion,” “Akallabeth,” and “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” These texts are the distillation of decades of imaginative work and mountains of notes accumulated by J. R. R. Tolkien in a fantasy which stretches from the birth of a universe through its mythical age and the departure from the created world of its visible supernatural and immortal denizens. The work which the reader sees is the result of Tolkien’s and his son Christopher’s efforts to give form to a much longer and more diffuse text. Even so, it is extremely complex, with an index of names, tables of genealogies, maps, and scholarly apparatus on pronunciation and formation of names of places and characters. The “Ainulindale” (music of the Ainur) and the “Valaquenta” (account of the Valar) establish a creation myth, in which Iluvatar sings the universe into being. A choir of Ainur attend Him, each a separate theme of His thought in the universal harmony. Melkor, along with Manwe the most powerful of the Ainur, revolts, singing an individual, discordant theme, choosing cold, darkness, and evil. The other Ainur remain faithful. Even Melkor’s discords are absorbed into the creation of Arda, or Ee, “the World that Is.” The “Quenta Silmarillion” follows with its tales of how fourteen of the Ainur, led by Manwe, chose to dedicate themselves to the shaping of Arda and preparation for the coming of the “Children of Iluvatar,” the Elves, Men, and Dwarves. Each of these good Ainur, or Valar, rules some aspect of the world. Melkor, the fallen angel, also takes up residence in Arda, awaiting the birth of the new peoples and twisting the work of the Valar.
The Valar choose the far West of the flat world, Valinor, lighting it with two huge lamps in endless day, beginning a harmonious and symmetrical creation. Melkor, in jealousy, casts down the lamps, throwing the Spring of Arda into darkness and turmoil. In the battle that follows, the lands are rent and tumbled, and Melkor is forced into concealment but fortifies himself in the fortress of Utumno with his attendant demons, the Balrogs. Yavanna, ruler of the growing things, returns light to Valinor by singing into life two wondrous Trees, Telperion and Laurelin, which glow with their own cyclical light. From the dew of Telperion, the angel Varda (Elbereth) forms the stars which light the twilight of Middle-earth. In impatience for the appearance of the Children of Iluvatar, Aule, the fabric of Arda, forms the Dwarf sires and then gives them, in penitence, to Iluvatar, who accepts them as foster children but leaves them to sleep under the mountains of Middle-earth until after the awakening of his First Born, the Elves.
From the first appearance of the Elves, singing in the starlight of Middle-earth, the fascination of the immortals with these creatures of Arda is complete. The Elves are not bounded by early death, as Men will be, but by the life of Arda itself, continuing, unless destroyed by injury or terrible woe, until the end of their world. To protect the Elves from Melkor, the Valar war against him, casting down Utumno and confining the Enemy in inescapable prison for three long ages. Many of his evil creations remain in Middle-earth, however, and the Valar invite the Elves to leave the starlit lands and walk in the light of the Two Trees in Valinor. Many Elves do complete the long journey to Valinor, among them the Noldor, led by their king, Finwe. Many Elves also remain in Middle-earth. Chief among these is Elwe, or Thingol (which means “grey-cloak”), who falls in love with Melian the Maia, even as he journeys toward Valinor and chooses to remain with her, establishing the Elven kingdom of Doriath in Middle-earth. They will be the parents of Luthien Tinuviel.
During the ages of imprisonment of Melkor, Sauron, his lieutenant, is active in Middle-earth, but in general there is peace and great bliss for the Elves and Valar, who teach many skills to the Elven smiths and poets. Melkor, on passing the term of his imprisonment, appears reformed, joining the Valar in Valinor yet spreading discord through a veil of lies. The son of Finwe, Feanor, a master smith, distrusts Melkor and, fearing evil in the future, gathers light from the Two Trees, fashioning it into three marvelous gems, the Silmarils. Feanor is fiery, proud, and independent. He is unwittingly drawn into the trap of Melkor’s lies and rebels against the Valar. Melkor reveals himself in open attack against Valinor, aided by Ungoliant, a devouring force of evil in the shape of a monstrous spider. She poisons the Two Trees, casting the world into darkness, and then she helps Melkor kill Finwe and steal the Silmarils. Feanor and his seven sons swear an oath by Iluvatar to avenge themselves and recover the Silmarils from anyone who might withhold them, setting this goal above any other and thus shaping the subsequent history of their people.
Led by Feanor and his sons, a host of Elves prepares to leave Valinor, against Manwe’s advice. Fingolfin, Faeanor’s younger half brother, follows him reluctantly and finds that the hot-blooded Feanor has forced a battle against the Teleri, Elven shipmakers and sailors who live on the coasts of Valinor facing the East and Middle-earth. Feanor takes enough ships for his own followers, sails to Middle-earth, and burns them, abandoning Fingolfin. The Elves under Fingolfin and his sons continue on foot through vast northern wastes, crossing the frozen sea with much suffering to arrive in Middle-earth after Faeanor on the very day when the Moon first rises over Arda. Though the history of the Noldor people returning thus to Middle-earth is hidden from Thingol and the other Elves of the twilight, their arrival is troubling; nevertheless, the Elves welcome the newcomers, who establish new realms in opposition to the Dark Lord. Melkor, renamed Morgoth by Feanor, makes use of the confusion of his enemies to prepare for battle. He is checked, however, by the rising of the new Sun, a power of light which throws his own hosts into disarray. Feanor marches against Morgoth and forces battle but, although victorious, dies, his body falling into ash as the fiery spirit leaves it. His sons survive and continue to strive to recover the Silmarils.
During the second age of the imprisonment of Morgoth, the first Dwarves appeared, and Thingol made alliances with them, using their skill as smiths and builders to build the hidden city of Menegroth of the Thousand Caves in Doriath. Two of the Noldor returning from Valinor also build hidden cities, acting on advice from Ulmo, Valar lord of water; Finrod builds Nargothrond, Turgon, the white city of Gondolin. With the rising of the Sun, the first Men appear in Middle-earth, wandering into contact with Elves and Dwarves as they come from the East and South. Some ally themselves with Morgoth, others with the houses of the Elf kings. The “gift” of llvatar to men is their mortality, their freedom from the tie which binds Elves to Arda, yet this gift is a perplexity to the Elves, since their friends and allies among men quickly wither and pass away, while the Elves become ever more beautiful and wise with time. Genealogies become important as the slow pace of Elven history is crossed with the shorter span of Men. Tolkien’s great tales of Beren and Luthien, Turin, son of Hurin, and Elwing and Eerendil all flow from the intertwining of Elves and Men in opposition to Morgoth.
The best developed of these key stories is that of Beren and Luthien, linking the oath of Feanor with the fate of Thingol’s house. Beren, son of a human line allied with Finrod of Nargothrond, is the last survivor of his family, living as a solitary foe of Morgoth. He meets Thingol’s daughter Luthien as she dances and sings in the glades of Doriath. Their love angers Thingol, who demands a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth as the bride price. With the help of Finrod, bound by his own oath to Beren’s father, and the aid of a great hunting hound brought from Valinor by one of Feanor’s sons, Beren and Luthien do succeed in wresting one Silmaril from the Dark Lord, but Finrod dies defending Beren in the dungeons of Sauron. Beren’s right hand, clutching the Silmaril, is swallowed by a terrible wolf, Carcharoth, created by Morgoth. Thingol allows the marriage of Luthien and Beren, but Beren is later fatally wounded while hunting Carcharoth and dies on delivering the recovered Silmaril to Thingol. Luthien journeys to the halls of Mandos, Lord of the Dead, and sings so sweetly of her sorrows that she is allowed the choice of immortality in Valinor or mortality in Middle-earth with Beren. Luthien and Beren return to Middle-earth and rear a son, Dior, who will be Thingol’s heir and the father of Elwing. Thus is founded one great Half-elven line.
Menegroth in Doriath, Gondolin the White, and Finrod’s Nargothrond are the strongholds of Elven kings in opposition to Morgoth, hidden cities where music and beauty flourish and from which heroes come to plague the Dark Lord. All three are destroyed as the Third Age brings Men into the Elven realms. When Idril, daughter of the Elven king Turgon, marries the human hero Tuor, a jealous Elf betrays the hidden city of Gondolin to Morgoth. Although Idril and Tuor escape with their son, Eerendil (later to be the husband of Elwing), the White City is destroyed by Balrogs, Orcs, and dragons. After Finrod’s death, suffered while helping the mortal Beren, another human hero, Turin Turambar, becomes a chief counselor for his city, Nargothrond. Turin, however, is a tragic figure, under the curse of Morgoth against his family, and his pride and the very success of his battles against Morgoth’s servants lead the enemy to the hidden fortress. A bridge, built by Turin’s advice, gives access to the city, and the great dragon, Glaurung the Golden, enters with a host of evil warriors and destroys the Elven stronghold.
Even Doriath, so long protected by Melian the Maia, is destroyed when Thingol is killed for the sake of the Silmaril by Dwarves. Melian then leaves Middle-earth to mourn for her lost love. Though the gem is recovered, the city is destroyed. Rebuilt by Beren’s son Dior, it is again destroyed by the sons of Feanor, in fulfillment of their oath, but the Silmaril itself escapes them and is taken into exile by Dior’s daughter Elwing. The subsequent marriage of Elwing to Eerendil, son of Idril and Tuor, brings together the two houses in which the blood of Elven princesses mingles with that of human heroes. As representatives of Elves and Men, they sail to the utter West to appeal to the Valar for aid in war against Morgoth. In pity for the woes of Arda, the Valar join once again in their battle and Morgoth is cast out of Time into the void of perpetual banishment. Eerendil, unable to return to mortal lands, is set to sail the heavens with the Silmaril set on the prow of his ship as a new star. Thus, the three hidden cities pass away, and Beren’s Silmaril passes beyond Middle-earth into the heavens.
Of the three Silmarils, one passes to the air. The other two, claimed by Feanor’s surviving sons, are won by them after much bloodshed and treachery, following the defeat of Morgoth. They prove a torment, however, to their possessors: One is so consumed by the fire of the gem that he casts himself with it into a volcanic cleft, thus giving it to Earth and Fire. The third so burns its holder, he throws it into the Sea and must ever afterward wander disconsolately singing at the seaside. With the passing of the Silmarils, many of the Elves forsake Middle-earth and journey West to Valinor. The sons of Elwing and Eerendil, Elros and Elrond Half-elven, are given the choice of belonging to one kindred or the other. Elrond chooses to be an Elf lord and remains in Middle-earth as the Master of Imladris (Rivendell). Elros chooses to be a mortal and is given a new land to rule, the island kingdom of Nimenor, raised up in the Western Sea within sight of Valinor. It is the story of Nimenor and its fall which is told in the fourth part of The Silmarillion, the “Akallabeth .”
Elros chose human form and the gift of mortality in establishing his kingdom of Nimenor, and the early kings of his line continued that choice and ruled wisely, revering the Valar and, in their voyages to Middle-earth, trying to help the Men settling there under the shadow of Morgoth’s lingering spite and the growing power of Sauron, his erstwhile lieutenant. As the kings of Nimenor gain in power, however, they begrudge the necessity of leaving their lives and dwell upon their fear of death, poisoning joy with envy of the undying land of Valinor, forbidden to them yet within their sight. Ar-Pharazon, king by usurpation, is the most warlike and mighty of the Nimenoreans. He sails to Middle-earth and conquers Sauron, taking him prisoner back to Nimenor. Sauron seduces Ar-Pharazon to worship of the Dark Lord and, eventually, to invasion of Valinor. As the royal host sails glittering into the West, a small group of Elf friends, led by Elendil of the line of Elros, prepares to flee. The great upheaval of land and sea that drowns the fleet of Ar-Pharazon and sends Nimenor to its grave drives the fleet of Elendil and his sons, Isildur and Anarion, to Middle-earth. The earth is bent to a globe and Valinor is removed from human sight, while Sauron’s beautiful visible form is destroyed and he returns to Middle-earth as a disembodied spirit of evil, seeking to reclothe and reestablish himself. The men of Nimenor, Dunedain as they are called in Middle-earth, found kingdoms where the Valar are honored, in friendship with Elves, protecting Middle-earth against evil forces.
The fifth and last part of the collection is “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” It completes the story of Elves in Middle-earth. After the destruction of Morgoth’s power and his casting out by the Valar, Sauron seemed to repent and put on a fair form, winning acceptance from some Elven peoples as adviser and teacher. In particular, he allied himself with Elven smiths and taught them to make rings of power, over which he gained some control by secretly forging a ruling ring in the volcanic fires of Mount Orodruin (Mount Doom). Three rings were saved from his complete domination by the Elves, however, rings that in hiding provided their wearers with great powers and preserved their lands from the encroachment of time. One of these was worn by the Lady Galadriel in Lorien, another by Elrond in Rivendell. The last was given by Cirdan the Shipwright to Gandalf, or Mithrandir. The other rings Sauron used to enslave Men and Dwarves. In particular, nine of these rings were given to great human kings, warriors, and sorcerers, who, after long, evil lives, were reduced by them to wraiths, the Nazgul. Discovered by the Elven smiths, Sauron sets himself in open opposition to Gil-galad, last of the high Elven kings in Middle-earth. Elendil, Isildur, and Anarion march with Gil-galad to lay siege to Barad-dur, Sauron’s fortress in the land of Mordor. Isildur is the only survivor of the four, cutting off the Ruling Ring from Sauron’s hand and claiming it as weregild for his father and brother. Sauron flees in defeat as a disembodied spirit, hiding for years before once again building up his power. The Ring betrays Isildur to enemies as he swims the river Anduin, slipping from his hand and disappearing for many years. As time passes, Anarion’s line dies out in the southern kingdom of Gondor and is replaced by a house of ruling stewards, while Isildur’s northern kingdom fades and the line of Arnor loses its royal stature and becomes a line of rangers, fostered by Elrond of Rivendell and always in opposition to Sauron. The shards of Elendil’s sword are preserved in Rivendell, and old tales call for a return of the king. In this time also, the Wise or Wizards appear as counselors to Men and Elves. The chief of them is Saruman the White in the Tower of Orthanc. He delves into the lore of rings of power and eventually betrays his friends, Galadriel and Elrond, wishing to supplant Sauron with the Ruling Ring. Gandalf the Grey, Mithrandir, is a wandering Wizard, friend of Elves and Men. He first learns of the reappearance of the Ruling Ring, and he guides Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit, on the perilous journey to destroy the Ring and with it the power of Sauron, who is again established in his fortress of Barad-dur and has set the Nazgul to seek his lost treasure.
Aragorn, a lineal descendant of Isildur and Elendil, bearer of the reforged sword, reveals himself in service to Frodo and rallies resistance to Sauron, leading the defense of Gondor and taking an army of Men, Elves, and Dwarves against the massed host of Sauron before the gates of Mordor at the very moment Frodo consummates the destruction of the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Sauron and his power are utterly destroyed, and Isildur’s heir established on the throne of Gondor. The Elven rings also fade in the extinction of the Ruling Ring, however, and the last of the Elves must leave Middle-earth, journeying to Cirdan the Shipwright, who makes ready for the last voyage away from the curved oceans of Arda and straight into the Ancient West of Valinor. Thus ends The Silmarillion.